Even after struggling through an ugly 0-for-4 on Monday night and leaving four runners on base, Pujols knew he needed just one more chance. One more at-bat, and he could turn around the game, the National League Championship Series and the Cardinals' season.
He got the chance, and he did what great players do -- he seized it.
Pujols obliterated a hanging slider from previously impenetrable Brad Lidge, depositing it 412 feet over the train tracks in left field at Minute Maid Park to give the Cardinals a 5-4 win over the Astros in an NLCS Game 5 for the ages. The Cardinals kept their season and Busch Stadium alive for at least two more days, and they are now two wins away from being the first team to win back-to-back National League pennants in nine years.
"I just wanted to relax and trust my hands, not try to do too much," Pujols said with a major degree of understatement. "Just try to hit a ball in the gap, hopefully get a base hit, get on base and let Reggie [Sanders] do the job. He gave me a good pitch to hit and I put my best swing of the night.
"I didn't know if I should let go of the bat or take it with me. I was shocked. I put my best swing of the night, and I didn't know what to do as I was running the bases."
Just to get to Pujols, the Cardinals had to do the improbable. John Rodriguez and John Mabry both struck out against Lidge, who has dominated the Cardinals over the years. A 1-2 count to David Eckstein meant St. Louis was down to its last strike. But 26 outs is not the same as 27, and Eckstein didn't give the last one away. He stroked a single through the left side, keeping the game going.
Jim Edmonds drew a walk from Lidge as the Minute Maid crowd grew tenser and tenser. After Pujols chased a low slider from Lidge, the right-hander hung one, and Pujols didn't miss it. It was the 10th home run of Pujols' postseason career. He's a lifetime .346 hitter in the playoffs.
"I was just thinking about, 'Don't swing at the same slider that I swung at the first pitch,'" Pujols said. "He's probably the best closer in the game besides Mariano [Rivera] right now. He has probably the best slider in the game. I just wanted to get a good pitch to hit and just put my best swing."
From the brink
|Five teams have won postseason games after being one out away from elimination.|
2005 NLCS, Game 5: Cardinals 5, Astros 4
|*1992 NLCS Game 7, Braves 3, Pirates 2|
|*1986 World Series, Game 6: Mets 6, Red Sox 5|
|*1986 ALCS, Game 5: Red Sox 7, Angels 6|
|1911 World Series, Game 5: Giants 4, Athletics 3|
|*=Team would go on to win series.|
Pujols' best swing is a thing to marvel at, and so the Cardinals dugout exploded, while more than 43,000 fans went eerily quiet. Isringhausen still needed to get three more outs, but it almost seemed like a formality even at Minute Maid.
"It was awesome," said Larry Walker. "We all jumped up. There was more noise in our dugout than in the whole stadium at that moment. It was fun to be out there and be part of it."
Pujols' homer turned around what had been a brutal night for the game's best right-handed hitter. It also made a footnote of what would have been a gut-wrenching, season-ending three-run homer by Lance Berkman two innings earlier.
Berkman had taken Chris Carpenter deep in the seventh, putting Houston ahead, 4-2 and moving the Astros within six outs of their first World Series trip. It was the Cardinals' first win in six postseason games at Minute Maid Park.
The shot made a winner of Jason Isringhausen, who pitched two perfect innings in relief of Carpenter. Minute Maid had been a house of horrors for Isringhausen, who surrendered a game-ending homer to Jeff Kent here in Game 5 of last year's NLCS.
"I'm glad to get out of here," Isringhausen said. "There are so many times when you can make a good pitch down and away, like Carp did, and a lazy fly ball goes out of the ballpark. ... We're ready to get to a real ballpark where we can make good pitches and get balls to left field without them going over the wall."
The win ensures that Busch Stadium will host at least one more game, as the series shifts back to St. Louis for Game 6 on Wednesday night. Old Busch will be demolished once the season ends, as the Cardinals move into a new ballpark with the same name for 2006.
It appeared for all the world that Berkman had ended Busch's run when he poked his dinger against Carpenter. With the Astros' bullpen looking untouchable, the Cards' chances seemed remote at best.
Astros one strike away
|With two outs and two strikes in the ninth, Astros closer Brad Lidge allowed the Cards to rally and take Game 5.|
|1-2, 2 outs||David Eckstein||Single|
|1-0, 2 outs||Jim Edmonds||Eckstein advanced to 2B|
|3-1, 2 outs||Edmonds||Walk|
|0-1, 2 outs||Albert Pujols||Three-run homer|
Carpenter didn't even view the pitch Berkman teed off on as a mistake. Houston's No. 3 hitter just did what left-handers can do at Minute Maid -- he reached out and practically placed the pitch in the left-field stands. The shot was set up by a Hector Luna error on Craig Biggio's one-out chopper and a single through the hole on the right side by Chris Burke.
The Cards had led for four full innings before Berkman went deep, on runs provided by Mark Grudzielanek and an exceptional effort by their staff ace. But in Houston, even a single slip-up can spell doom, and that was the case for Carpenter.
Grudzielanek's two-run bloop single ended a string of nearly four solid games in which the Cardinals had not scored more than one run in an inning, and helped get him off a postseason-long schneid. Grudzielanek entered the game hitting .133 (2-for-15) in the NLCS and .143 for the postseason. But Astros lefty Andy Pettitte locked in after the third.
Carpenter worked out of trouble in the first and fourth and minimized a potentially big second inning before settling in to cruise through the fifth and sixth.
Pettitte did essentially the same thing to the Cards over the first two innings before the Redbirds at last broke through. Eckstein led off the third with a single, then Eckstein stole second and Edmonds walked. Pujols and Sanders both struck out, but Walker worked a base on balls before Grudzielanek looped his soft single into shallow right-center.
That erased a 1-0 deficit that could have been much worse. Jason Lane's single and Brad Ausmus' double down the line put Carpenter in almost as deep a hole as a pitcher can face -- second and third, no outs. But he struck out Adam Everett for the first out and got some help from his defense for the second.
Pettitte hit a bouncer to Pujols, and Pujols fired home. Catcher Yadier Molina had to lunge awkwardly for the ball, but managed to twist around and put a tag on Lane for out No. 2. Biggio's single made it 1-0, but Carpenter struck out Burke to escape what had the potential to be a "crooked number" inning.
Molina took a couple of dings on the night. In addition to taking Lane's knee to his head on the play, he was also banged on his bare right hand by a foul ball. But it didn't matter.
"I'm fine right now," he said with a grin. "Nothing hurts. I'm just happy."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.